A jovial tone is struck in the closing credits of Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s striking but grisly “Of Good Report”: As animated devils brighten the screen, a disclaimer advises that any relation the narrative might bear to real events “is purely coincidental, honest, LOL.” That might leave viewers uncertain how seriously to take a film that, for all its black-comic stylings, deals in few laughing matters. As obsessive student-teacher romance swerves wildly into splattery horror, this aggressively directed pic covers sufficiently uncharted territory for South African cinema to have earned itself a local ban ahead of its Durban fest premiere in July; wholly unjustified and swiftly reversed, it has nonetheless earned “Report” an unruly reputation that is already serving it well on the international festival circuit.
Nearly 20 years after South Africa’s first democratic election, its tradition of black cinema remains a short one, which makes Qubeka’s third feature, unpolished as it is, a potential industry milestone: a rare attempt to fuse genre playfulness with post-apartheid political subtext. Race is not a front-and-center concern here, but the country’s legacy of violence and patriarchal sexuality certainly is. (One may sense tacit bristling against the presidency of polygamist and accused rapist Jacob Zuma; the South African government, however, banned it on the ludicrous grounds that it qualifies as “child porn.”) In many respects, it’s the feature one might have expected from Teboho Mahlatsi after his influential 1999 short “Portrait of a Young Man Drowning,” which probed the black male psyche with equivalent stylistic panache and eccentricity.
Viewers are plunged directly into the film’s strange, monochrome vision with an opening that many may mistake for a dream sequence, as protagonist Parker (Mothusi Magano) limps across a scabby rural landscape, picking teeth out of his bloodied skull as townsfolk hiss and spit in his direction. Not for the first time in this chronologically jumpy narrative, a rewind is in order, as we encounter a more clean-scrubbed, bespectacled Parker being interviewed for the position of English teacher at a rural high school in an unspecified locale. (Dialogue, authentically enough, switches with imperceptible abandon among several of the country’s 11 official languages.) The stern headmistress (local soap-opera veteran Tina Jaxa) is impressed that he comes “of good report,” even if we don’t know precisely from whence he came; colleague Vuyani (Tshamano Sebe) is more skeptical.
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The night before he begins at his post, Parker meets precociously alluring 16-year-old Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma) at a local tavern and promptly falls into bed with her; that her name is pronounced to rhyme with “Lolita” is no coincidence. Though mortified when she turns up in his class the next day, he finds himself too aroused to halt the progress of their briefly torrid affair — or to leave her alone when Nolitha grows bored and seeks a suitor her own age. As his behavior grows more irrational, his capacity for violence is revealed through flashbacks to both his traumatic military service in the Congo and his abusive relationship with his elderly mother, which bleed into the present-day action as his heavily signposted breakdown approaches.
Luridly compelling if never quite surprising, Parker’s descent is realized by Qubeka with unsubtle stylistic aplomb. The heightened noir flourishes are, of course, accentuated by Jonathan Kovel’s black-and-white lensing, even if the slightly washed-out digital finish isn’t always up to the flair of the compositions. The crudely effective poetry of the film’s approach is best represented by a witty, metaphoric montage that portrays the arc of Parker and Nolitha’s queasy relationship in the space of a single tango lesson: Like a warped outtake from “Chicago,” the sequence is one of many distinguished by Joel Kapend’s clever, claustrophobically layered sound design.